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17. Worse than the Village Scarecrow

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Accompanied by a cheering crowd of villagers, Sir Isenbard, his men, Burchard, and Ayla made their way up to the castle.

“I trust you will see to it that Sir Isenbard's men receive appropriate quarters, Burchard?” Ayla said to her steward.

“Yes, Milady.”

“Then do it, and we will meet later to discuss everything. I have to go and have a look at Reuben now.”

“Reuben?” If Isenbard hadn't already had so many wrinkles on his forehead, one might have detected a frown there. “Who is Reuben?”

“Ayla found a wounded bird in the woods she had to take care of until he can fly again,” Burchard grunted, rolling his eyes. “You know how she gets.”

“You mean charitable and caring?” Ayla asked sweetly. “Yes, I do get like that. You should try it some time.”

The steward pulled a face. “Actually, I meant foolish and reckless. We shouldn't be harboring any stranger in the castle now that we are about to be besieged! It is dangerous. We don't know anything about who he is or, more importantly, whom he serves.”

“What would you have me do?” Ayla demanded. “Throw him out to die on the off chance that he might be a spy?”

“Doesn't sound like a bad idea to me.”

“You had better concentrate on the real threats instead of making up imaginary ones,” she chided him. “Catch me that red robber knight for a start!”

“He's not likely to show his face on this side of the river now that we've got an armed guard at the bridge. And to cross the river to search for him would be too dangerous. Falkenstein could have hundreds of men in the forest by now.”

“So you're afraid?”

“Now listen here, you little slip of a girl...”

Isenbard had walked alongside them listening to their heated conversation without showing any emotion. Now he interrupted: “Milady?”

She took a deep breath and turned to him. “Yes, Uncle?”

“I think you said you needed my help. Against which of those two you mentioned? This robber knight or the Margrave von Falkenstein?”

“The Margrave,” Burchard replied immediately.

“The Margrave,” Ayla conceded grudgingly after a few moments. “Though I'd dearly love to see that villainous robber's head on a pike,” she added.

“Your wishes are duly noted,” Isenbard said with a bow of his head. “We shall discuss the matter of the Margrave as soon as my men are settled in at the castle.”

Ayla frowned, momentarily thrown off. “At the castle? Why at the castle, Uncle? We're planning to head the enemy off at the bridge. Wouldn't it be better to erect barracks or tents for the men there?”

Isenbard shook his head. “No. The bridge may be the first line of defense, but the castle will be any enemy's main objective. It may be that they find a way across the river other than the bridge. If we leave the castle unguarded, they could take it before we even notice. Such things have happened before—I've heard of one case where a lord with all the castle folk went to a feast in the neighborhood. When they returned, the doors were locked and a different flag was flying from the tower. One of his supposed friends had simply snatched the place while nobody was in it. We cannot make the same mistake. The castle must be guarded. We will station a small force at the bridge, and if they need support, they will have to wait until help from the castle arrives.”

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